Quick News Roundup|Putting an End to the Perpetually Backwards Way We Go About Building Advocacy Strength

Weekend’s Greetings, CharterFolk.

Coming to you on a weekend when you might have an extra minute for a post that will be a mix of thumbnail thoughts and a longer form idea I’d like to develop.

First, a quick roundup of some articles I’ve been wanting to highlight:

Catholic School Enrollment Trends

CharterFolk may have tracked that past CharterFolk Contributor Greg Richmond and former CEO of NACSA took the job as Superintendent of Catholic Schools in Chicago. The archdiocese there is seeing its first increase in enrollment in 40 years.

The same is true in Los Angeles, where the archdiocese has seen an enrollment increase of 4% this year. Unfortunately, LA Archdiocese Superintendent Paul Escala, who like Greg has also held positions of leadership in charterworld, has been forced to sue Los Angeles Unified.

Put this one in the “Yes, Mom, it’s true category.”

As unbelievable as it is, Mom, yes, school districts will withhold millions of dollars from other schools serving thousands of low-income students, even when they’re told by their state not to. And yes, Mom, people responsible for serving those kids and families who are being shortchanged end up having no choice but to do things like file lawsuits.

This is what happens when money intended for all kids passes through school districts who only serve some kids. They make sure that resources end up coming to their own kids at the expense of other kids. Things get particularly bad when school districts are so badly managed financially that they’ll do anything to push off their impending financial implosion. They end up resorting to actions that fail the common decency test, or the “have you no values” test, like denying tens of millions of dollars to low-income kids and families.

It’s sad but true, Mom.

Keep going, Paul.

Charter School Bill a “Non-Starter” For Dems in the Virginia Legislature

This is the article I’ve been waiting for.

Before Youngkin is even sworn in …

… Dems in the state senate, who still control the chamber, profess a new charter school bill a “non-starter.”

Virginia, as we have written about previously, is a charter school state in name only. Twenty-four years after the passage of its charter school law, the state still only has 1200 kids in charter schools. That is the case because Virginia was the first adopter of the NEA’s current policy position on charter schools – that only school districts should be permitted to authorize charter schools.

Put this one in the “common sense category:”

If school districts are the only entities that can authorize charter schools, there will be no charter schools.

Virginia proves it.

If any public official tries to tell you that they support charter schools but only want school districts to be authorizers, point them to the example of Virginia and tell them their position is indistinguishable from full-bore opposition to charter schools.

Virginia will stay in its status of full-bore opposition unless Youngkin and supporters of charter schools find a way to push something through the Senate. I said it was going to be a heavy lift and now we’re seeing that turn out to be the case. In the end, it won’t come down to anything other than brute political force. Once Youngkin sees this, will he be willing to expend the political capital needed to push through something substantive, or will he realize it’s easier just to throw red meat to his political base on other education issues?

It will be very interesting to see.

Rotherham on Bloomberg

This is a good one, CharterFolk.

I like this part in particular.

All this is why the lack of enthusiasm from the education reform and charter school world over the Bloomberg announcement was as noteworthy as the commitment itself. Whether from COVID fatigue or punch drunkenness after years being politically back on their heels, there was not the reception from reformers that you might expect for three quarters of a billion dollars for charter schooling.

He was a little more blunt about it over at his Eduwonk site.

I don’t know if Andy would consider CharterFolk in the “crickets category,” given our response here

… but Andy’s onto something. It’s why I continue pushing for the following:

So if there was ever a moment for us to be conveying that the charter school movement wants to grow, not because wealthy supporters want us to grow, but because thousands upon thousands of families and students are wanting us to grow, now is that moment. The problem is that so many in our base are simply exhausted right now dealing with all of the challenges of the pandemic that projecting out an intent to grow is beyond many of us. That, in my view, is where our charter school advocacy organizations come into play, systematically, sensitively engaging with all charter school communities and aggregating the stories of all organizations – big, small and in between – that have intent to grow if conditions for growth are conducive, and getting those collective expressions of intent to grow out into the landscape as quickly as possible.

The exhaustion factor among operators during this omicron spike is beyond compare right now. So I reiterate the call to advocacy organizations. I know you, too, face your own depletion realities and an unprecedented scope of risk and opportunity right now, but we’ve got to get our intent to grow more visibly planted in political landscapes across the country. Its best form would be bold new policy proposals that draw attention to the fact that students and parents are desperately looking for something new and better in the wake of the traditional system demonstrating its brokenness during Covid, and the charter school movement is committed to doing all we can to create those better options as quickly as possible.

Putting an End to the Perpetually Backwards Way We Go About Building Advocacy Strength

I shift now to the longer concept I wanted to develop.

Since publishing this week’s post about unprecedented turnover happening in many states legislatures for the 2022 cycle, we have seen announcements of even more legislator departures. It puts the charterworld in a very familiar position from an advocacy standpoint:


Or maybe more precisely: not as ready as we would like to be in many places, and in others completely and utterly not ready.

And so we will do all that we can in the short term to compensate for our unreadiness by improvising ways to secure wins and block losses. All that is super important. I personally will be helping us do as much effective improvising as as we can in the months ahead. The stakes are incredibly high in ’22.

With that said, the urgency we feel to compensate for advocacy unreadiness is nothing new in charterland. It’s the pattern we have let play out over and over, an endless cycle of short-term thinking that ultimately ends up holding us back. The point of the rest of this post will be to present how the typical short-term thinking cycle plays out and to present a different way for us to think about this going forward.

My contention is that our short-term thinking grows out of two realities that we have been contending with.

  • The first is what I’ve just described above, that we’re always dealing with short-term risks and opportunities and so it’s completely understandable that we would act and think in this way. Of course we have to do whatever is needed to try to protect the movement from whatever immediate threat arises.
  • The second is that we’ve been stuck in a notion that we don’t have any potential to build long-term assets and strength anyway so why bother to invest in anything for the long term?

It’s this second bullet, in my view, that has become outdated. Going into our fourth decade as a movement, we are approaching having four million kids in charter schools and that gives us a heft that completely changes our long-term potential. Unlike previously when we didn’t have enough people connected to our movement to build authentic long-term advocacy strength and infrastructure, now we do, but we remain stuck in a mode of thinking that presumes that we don’t. And so we continue needlessly setting ourselves back. The quicker we can change our collective mindset and our actions, the faster we will begin building a level of advocacy and political strength orders of magnitude larger than anything we have had before.

Here is how the normal cycle goes.

Step 1 – Someone recognizes that we have a problem or opportunity as it relates to the overall impact of charter schools. This could be all sorts of things. Our schools aren’t growing fast enough. Our schools are under-resourced.

Our schools can’t get facilities. We can’t get new charters approved. Our schools aren’t high quality enough. Whatever, you name it. We see that there is a problem in the landscape and there is no steward in the landscape responsible for overall movement impact solving the problem or taking advantage of an opportunity.

Step 2– We recognize that that the solution to our overall impact problem or opportunity is securing a policy win or winning a political race. This is when we get focused on passing or stopping particular pieces of legislation …

… or advancing or defeating particular candidates either supportive or threatening to charter schools. I call this the “F’s” stage. People get excited about winning a particular policy fight on matters related to Funding, Facilities and Freedom or a political fight where we could get new Friends into office. Often our thinking will be something like: “Hey, charter schools don’t have funding equity in our state, we have to pass a bill or a ballot measure next month to change it.” Or “Hey, there’s somebody absolutely toxic to charter schools running for an office where he or she could do huge harm to us. We gotta figure out a way to win this election happening next month.”

Invariably, because we start working on these things only months in advance, our effort isn’t as effective as it could otherwise be.

Step 3– We recognize that, if we are really going to be able to win advocacy fights more reliably, we have to actually get good at advocacy. It means we have to learn how legislation actually gets passed and we have to build a structural capacity and expertise to work in legislatures well. And if there are other places where policy fights are playing out– at school district levels, in the courts, in the court of public opinion (communications)– we recognize we have to get good in those domains too. Just like we begin to recognize that if we want to reliably be able to help charter-friendly candidates win at the ballot box, we have to build political capacity and expertise as well.

Step 4– We recognize that there are a lot of charter school leaders and board members and parents and alumni who, if they got involved in our advocacy efforts, would add immense force and legitimacy to our ongoing policy work and political work. So we then start thinking about ways we could begin developing our grassroots strength. Usually that starts with short-term thinking. We have a particular bill up in the legislature. We find ways to get thousands of parents to a park.

Invariably those efforts prove only to be of marginal value and lead to efforts that are more authentic focusing on building the ability to turn out large numbers of charter school stakeholders at the ballot box. Of course, in order to fully bring charter school stakeholders into these efforts, we have to build systems of engagement and shared decision-making so that people feel like their voices are genuinely heard within the structures that are leading the work.

Finally, people start thinking about creating organizations with deep foundations wherein we can situate the expertise and structural capacity to take on advocacy and political work in a long-term repeated fashion. Historically, we have thought about this last because we have presumed that the charter school world is so small, and charter school stakeholders are so squirrelly and unwilling to work together on shared priorities, that it’s not even worth bothering to think about making organizations with deep foundations. It leaves us living in a state of advocacy unreadiness that results from perpetual short-term thinking.

Things are all backwards. Things aren’t steady. We feel perpetually on the precipice of things collapsing and starting all over again.

When in reality, what we want is just the opposite.

What we want is a sturdy pyramid of long-term advocacy strength where things fit coherently together:

  • A firm foundation of an economically strong organization, featuring great governance and extraordinary staff …
  • Amassing and aligning the grassroots strength of the charter school movement through authentic engagement and shared decision-making …
  • Building ever increasing capacity and sophistication in the key advocacy domains …
  • Focusing on securing tangible policy and ballot box wins regarding Facilities, Funding, Freedom and Friends …
  • Ultimately playing a stewarding role making sure that we rapidly grow a sector of high quality charter schools constructively pushing all of public education to become more equitable and excellent.

Another way to present it visually is as follows.

We’ve tended to approach our advocacy needs with a short-term crisis mentality where the push for progress feels top down …

… when we know that the emergence of authentic long-term power will grow out of efforts that feel “from the ground up.”

I will say, CharterFolk, that there’s great reason for optimism that we’re finally getting it.

It starts with a recognition that we’re bigger than we thought we were. Not only are CharterFolk waking up to the fact that our base is big enough now that, if we all do our part, we can put significant, durable advocacy capacity on the map. I mean really, CharterFolk, if “tiny Rhode Island” with 6500 kids in charter schools can bring together the resources needed to create a viable state association, and if places like Massachusetts and Illinois and Texas and California can keep paving the way toward structural advocacy strength such that many others continue following in their footsteps like we’re seeing happen right now, we are in a completely different place than we were just a few years back.

But just as importantly, in my estimation, is a critical learning that has happened in recent years.

Our movement now recognizes that the five levels of the pyramid presented above are in fact the essential components of great advocacy.

Equipped now with that key recognition, we can now go about building our pyramids of authentic advocacy strength with greater confidence, urgency and effectiveness.

Obviously, in the months and years ahead, we are going to continue feeling the pressure to build advocacy strength in ways that will feel “top down.” It’s inevitable. We will always feel the pressure to make immediate term-progress. We should feel that pressure!

But rather than those efforts overwhelming everything we do, they will happen within the context of rapidly expanding pyramids whose primary over-arching direction will feel upward, authentic and built-to-last. In that way, we will put an end to our perpetually backward way of thinking about advocacy strengthening. And that, in turn, will ensure that the fourth decade of the charter school movement will result in the creation of advocacy excellence far beyond anything we have ever achieved before.